Spirituality for Today – April 2016 – Volume 20, Issue 9

A Ray of Hope in Depression

Pam Aherne

A photo of light at the end of a dark tunnel

A friend has asked me to jot down something about my experience of breakdown and depression and how I came through it. I do so with fervent prayers for anyone suffering from this nightmare state, in the hope that something in my account may be helpful to them.

How we experience things, including depression, is as unique as each of us is and therefore only Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ can fully understand what each person is going through. I know now that He not only sees through our eyes but in a mysterious way He experiences it with us. However, I found that the worst aspect of my depression was the experience of feeling profoundly and totally cut off from God and goodness. This experience was unremitting and lasted for over four years, the last time I had it. (I have had increasingly longer bouts of it in the past too).

Eventually I came to realise that the only possible refuge I had was in Christ's own dereliction on the cross when He cried out 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' He became sin for me and for you.

Although it did not lessen my horror or the terror I experienced, it was enough to make me hold on when suicide presented itself yet again as a viable option. Somehow I still sought the God of mercy who does 'not want the death of a wicked person', for such was my belief of myself,' but that s/he turn to me and live'. I simultaneously sought and despaired.

I sought God by looking for a spiritual director and by relying on the prayers of friends, including priest friends, and by praying with one friend every day, trusting in her closeness to the Lord. In the same way I sought God through His Holy Mother, St. Joseph, St. Jude and other heavenly friends. I could not seek God by myself because I was afraid of Him, so acutely was I aware of my sinfulness. It was awful not to trust Him because I know that it wounds His Redeeming heart so much. It was not that I thought of Him as some ogre or as someone making notes of all my awful thoughts or actions, or rather inactions. But my relationship with the Lord was in ruins and I felt I didn't belong to Him.

Humanly speaking my life was at rock bottom. For various reasons, I had lost my job, which was more than a job since I looked on it as my vocation, teaching children with severe learning difficulties. I lost my mum firstly to severe Alzheimer's and then in her death. All my relationships were affected as I withdrew into myself and could barely think of anything else than the nightmare I was going through from second to second. People could not understand me and I tried the patience of really good friends with my constant pleas for prayers.

I hope that's enough to assure that reader that I was indeed in a very wretched state. So now to the means of emerging from the swamp and to staying as clear of it as possible. Before I do this, I must add that all this time I was on medication and I had seen psychiatrists and psychologists who had done their best to help me. I am not saying that these did no good because everything no doubt plays its part but it was only by the following spiritual programme for my life and the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes and other saints because of prayers said for me by very kind friends that God gradually drew me out and freed me.

When I went to Lourdes to really hand everything over to Our Lady, from then on there was a ray, a shaft of hope which was to increase gradually as I did my bit as well as I could and learnt to depend on God and leave the rest of it to Him. Of course there had to be the willingness at least to want to leave behind anything I knew God didn't want or to be willing to at least want to do what I felt He wanted me to do. Jesus tells us that the Truth He brings, and our efforts to live accordingly, will set us free.

Having a spiritual director was very important. I had confidence that mine (the late Monsignor Philip Loftus) was a real friend of God and prayerful and I knew that he really wanted to help me. He gave me a plan of life and I leave it to the reader to see how wise in spiritual, psychological and physical terms it was.

Every negative thought, each accusation or fear was to be caught (often lurking at the bottom of a negative feeling) and to be symbolically transferred into a pebble. The pebble had to be dropped into a container of water, with the prayer 'may we leave the past to God's mercy, the future to His Providence and may we face the present, trusting in God's Grace'. The water represents the ocean of God's love and mercy. The pebble is so slight in comparison and yet is so destructive to our wellbeing.

The 'we' referred to the group of people that I was going to particularly pray for that day e.g. the sick, prisoners. I then had to leave that negative thought thus in God's hands…not fish the pebble out again. This needed repeating however many negative thought there were and there were many in the beginning.

The key factor here is that we must do all we can to leave the negative pebble there and not follow the inevitable temptation to 'go fishing', get it back and re-examine it! The effort we put into doing this involves self-denial for we are going against a habitual inclination to letting the thought go round in our thoughts and wreak havoc in our feelings and interior peace. It's strange that we tend to cling to doing what wounds us and we need to honestly face the question our Lord asks us 'Do you want to be healed?' By denying ourselves this indulgence, however compelling the thought, we are taking up our Cross and we can be sure that Jesus will help us to carry it and we will find our Lady with us as she kept him company on the Via Dolorosa. Moreover it is this effort which draws down Grace for our chosen group of souls or intention that day.

Even when going out this 'pebbling' can be done, transferring a pebble from one pocket to the other or letting go a pebble in our pocket. Eventually this could be all done mentally without the use of actual pebbles, though I still use them in difficult times.

Everything that follows aided me in this effort to distract myself from the surrendered 'pebble' and live in the Present, where God is.

I had to go on two substantial walks daily, and on each one find four things to thank God for. I had to really look at nature even into a flower to see the detail. He said my walking was my prayer, and my 'work', knowing how I was virtually housebound with the depression.

I had to read a novel for two periods of half an hour each, concentrating on what I was reading. It hadn't to be a spiritual book since I got caught up with negative worries in these or kept trying to solve it all myself. At first it was really hard to concentrate and remember what I had just read. Now my reading was my prayer and work, as it was in obedience that I did all this.

I had to eat 3 meals a day and shop for them and set the table as if for a guest. I had given up eating properly or balanced meals.

I had to memorise a few lines of a hymn, psalm or poem every day and then these could be used in meditation.

Meditation was very hard for me at first and he said to just try and rest in God and repeat the lines learnt. I remember telling Father Loftus that I couldn't do this because I couldn't 'see Jesus' face. I meant I couldn't visualise Jesus, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. Father replied, that a child being carried, held against her father's chest couldn't see his face either. I had to 'be willing' to believe in the personal and unconditional love of Jesus for me. I had to 'let God love me'.

If I awoke in the night and was oppressed with all the negative stuff, I had to get up, 'pebble' it to God and watch the television for half an hour, having a piece of toast and tea. I must not try and pray more about it as this can be a kind of dwelling on it. I could not deal with it, only God can and we allow Him to do so when we are obedient to such sound spiritual guidance which is based solely on the teaching of Jesus Himself about self- denial and trust in God.

Over some months, the ray of hope or shaft of light grew and I became freer of the swamp, more trusting and, with great relief, more able to focus on others and real life. Healing of all the woundedness that made up my depression in the first place is still on-going and I'm sure there is a long way to go but I find I can live with the 'not yet' of some aspects, trusting that I am not alone or cut off but that God is working things out in His way and all will be well.

'Come to Me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest' (Matthew 11:28)